December 2010

Kati Nolfi


How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis is perhaps the best writer to valorize bad social behavior. The writer of a defense of adultery and a dismissal of monogamous coupling -- Against Love: A Polemic -- Kipnis combines a zeal for transgression with hedonistic tendencies and devotion to Freud. In How to Become a Scandal, she inspects moral subversiveness from four contemporary tabloid tales -- the astronaut love triangle, for one -- she labels “Downfalls” and “Uproars.” Kipnis loves scandal and nonconformity, no matter how destructive. She elides any remaining demarcation between high and low culture, gleaning insight from base scandals. However, Kipnis frustrates the reader looking for depth; she often glosses her observations with chatty and entertaining magazine-speak. The brilliantly revelatory attack of Against Love is not in evidence here.

Kipnis delights in the bad behavior of tabloid scandal. Passionate and daring scandalizers are her icons, but ultimately she sees scandalizers and the scandalized as self-delusional. The scandalized pretends to be horrified again and again, and demands redress but never accepts the scandalizer’s remorse. The scandalizers profess to be temporarily insane. Few are the proud folk heroes who commit wholly to sinful iconoclasm and excess without shame. To Kipnis, scandals are the brief moment of truth, the expression of the slutty human spirit. To those who tire of claims to human reason she is refreshing; she’s a rebel who doesn’t disparage desire or sex and the erratic routes they take. She doesn’t lecture or elevate herself. There’s something appealing about Kipnis’s acceptance of pleasure and her mythological appreciation for vengeance. She sees in scandal the real story about human desire and its denial. Denial tends to lead to more desire. According to How to Become a Scandal, the scandalizer relies on her community to quell her lusty “ungovernability” while the community is both entertained and strengthened by moral infractions.

Scandal and public revelations, indiscriminate intimate storytelling and personal downfall depend on one another. We sabotage our best interests to connect with others, to be honest and unburdened and maybe to erase boundaries. Kipnis identifies a shared “split consciousness” in the way that “scandalizers keep ‘forgetting’ about social consequences, and scandal audiences keep ‘forgetting’ about how routine such lapses are, this ability to both know something and not know it at the same time appears to be a common trait uniting these two ostensibly disparate groups.” And how often do the scandalizer and scandalized exist in the same heart, indulgence and restriction vacillating in one body. A culture reasserts its values when individuals transgress. Revolting leads to punishment and the required apology restores the status quo. The obligatory public apology is disbelieved by all, and yet it is a necessary accompaniment to public scandal, this self-flagellation in the arena.

Kipnis teasingly inserts herself into her narrative without giving the reader any details of her personal life. She might allude to a struggle with weight or a love of expensive grooming procedures, but in keeping with her distrust of confession she doesn’t reveal much. We can only wonder about her experiments in vice. She muses about a possible connection between writers and scandal and whether writers are drawn to darkness because of vicarious geek fascination or direct experience with self-immolation and drunken transcendence. While I am biased toward Kipnis and always excited to read her work, I regret that this slight book has little new information or insights. I would rather read Kipnis’s thoughts about memoir, celebrity, and sin without such lengthy retreads of tabloid scandal.

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis
Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 0805089799
224 Pages